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Scott signs Internet cafe ban, local police have strengthened tools for crackdown


Gov. Rick Scott has signed a bill to give law enforcement better tools to put an end to illegal gambling devices in strip malls and arcades throughout the state. 

With no fanfare, the governor signed the bill in the privacy of his office when he returned to the Capitol Wednesday after making a jobs announcement in Lakeland this morning.

The measure, HB 155, is a response to a three-year federal and state investigation into illegal gambling at Internet cafes run by the Allied Veterans of the World and has already resulted in job losses for hundreds of workers in now-shuttered operations. It will be enforced by local law enforcement. 

"I think the House and Senate did the right thing to crackdown on illegal gaming, especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy,'' Scott told reporters on Wednesday.

He would not respond to the questions about the 14,000 people who are expected to be put out of work because of the law. "I have a jobs agenda,'' he said, urging the legislature to pass his proposal for eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment, one of his two priorities this session. 

The Florida Arcade Association, which has fought the legislature's attempt to include their machines in the crackdown, said the action put a “closed” sign on more than 200 arcades and businesses throughout the state and put other arcade businesses in legal jeopardy.

“With the stroke of the governor’s pen, thousands of jobs were lost today. With all the effort that is put into this state to create jobs, it is unconscionable that the state is acting to put people in the unemployment line,” said Gale Fontaine, President of the Florida Arcade Association.

Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who once worked for Allied Veterans, resigned in the wake of the investigation and subsequent arrests because she had once worked as a consultant for the company. She resigned, she said, to avoid becoming a distraction to the governor.

The law becomes effective immediately, giving law enforcement new definitions on which to crackdown on illegal gambling machines. It also imposes new restrictions on arcade games and bans all electronic casino look-alikes.

For the past three weeks, Internet cafes and adult arcade owners throughout Florida have already been closing down, dismantling equipment and laying off workers in anticipation of the move.

After the arrest of 57 owners and operators associated with Allied Veterans, Florida legislators -- who for years ignored warnings from law enforcement that the gray areas of the law had allowed for the proliferation of the illegal games -- passed the legislation with record speed.

Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who anchored the federal and state investigation called “Operation Reveal the Deal,” told the Herald/Times his efforts have been validated by the governor’s actions.

For years, Eslinger was among a handful of sheriffs that urged lawmakers to tighten the law to make it easier for law enforcement to crackdown on the illegal games only to have their proposals languish and Internet Cafes proliferate. In the meantime, the industry donated millions to legislative campaigns, estimated at more than $2 million in the 2012 election cycle alone.

“It wasn’t a loophole in the law,’’ Eslinger said Tuesday. “The law was complex, difficult and expensive to investigate – and  this will certainly will enhance law enforcement efforts.’’

But the manufacturers of the arcade machines, two of which are based in Hollywood, Florida, say they are poised to challenge the law and are seeking ways to retrofit the machines.

The arcade industry, which is allowed to operate games only if there are a minimum of 50 games in play, is in the process of hiring a lawyer to allow them to challenge the law for its lack of clarity. It has already begun an effort to show that law enforcement has engaged in selective enforcement of the current law.

They are asking operators and patrons of adult arcades to file complaints with police about machines that are operated at children's arcades, skating rinks, movie theaters, restaurants and retailers that could also fall under the ban because they currently aren't operated by owners with at least 50 machines on site. 

“Everybody is just waiting to see what they can do,’’ said John Sasso, sales manager for Electromatic International Inc. a machine manufacturer based in Hollywood.

He has sent out a call to all arcade owners to scout out any illegal games operating in retail stores and children’s entertainment centers, such as Denny’s Golden Corral, Wal-Mart, Chuck E Cheese and Dave & Busters, take a picture and report it to police when the bill is signed.

“It is sad to say that most locations are now closed due to HB 155,’’ Sasso wrote in a note to arcade owners. “But it is not over. There are still several legal manuevers that need to happen before burying the key.”